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The 20 Best Superhero Movie Villains

Thanos, the Mad Titan, arrives on a wave of hype — but just how does he rank against the best villains ever? We decided to look at the most compelling antagonists in all of superhero cinema.

by | April 27, 2018 | Comments

To go by his words and deeds, Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos (Josh Brolin) may be the most consummate and powerful foe the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet unleashed. To hear him tell it, his attempt to give the universe balance by obtaining the Infinity Stones is a merciful and humane action. Perhaps more than any other Marvel villain, he is a hero in his own mind with goals he perceives as altruistic.

But will his Infinity War appearance make him one of the great film supervillains of all time? And what makes for greatness when it comes to villainy? Is it a grand plan executed with aplomb? An iconic look or an immediately quotable motto? Or is it a knack for banter with the hero? As more and more people see Infinity War, Thanos’s merits as one of the great villains will be debated, but let’s take a look at 20 of the big screen’s greatest superhero foes he will have to contend with to get that honor.


20. The Joker (Cesar Romero)

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

The big screen’s first Joker was also television’s original Crown Prince of Crime. Romero memorably gave the character his psychotic laugh and off-kilter sense of humor. In the film, he also succeeds at being a cabin boy to a senile admiral. Armed with his repertoire and a “dehydration” gun, the Joker — along with the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) — creates plenty of trouble for the Dynamic Duo.

Film Appearances: Batman: The Movie (1966), though he previously appeared in the Batman TV series.

Tomatometer: 80%

North American Box Office: $1.7 million

Destruction Factor: Turns the “United World” Security Council to a fine powder.

Memorable Line: “I’m afraid they’ll find our humor very, very dry!”

Powers: Puns and gag weapons.

Cosplay Cred: Few are ever willing to grow a Romero mustache for the perfect Joker ’66 look.


19. Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton)

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios)

As a deep-cover spy, Neville Sinclair was the toast of Hollywood with the ability to bed any woman and earn the trust of any man. But his attempt to secure Howard Hughes’s (Terry O’Quinn) experimental rocket pack fills him with a particular mania that serves to be his undoing. Also: his sophisticated movie star image is the perfect counterpoint to the unkempt style of the Rocketeer (Billy Campbell).

Film Appearances: The Rocketeer (1991)

Tomatometer: 62%

US Box Office: $46.7 million

Destruction Factor: Assists in the destruction of a dirigible, the rocket pack itself, and a portion of the “Hollywoodland” sign.

Memorable Line: “It wasn’t lies, Jenny. It vas acting.”

Powers: A strong resemblance to Errol Flynn and Timothy Dalton.

Cosplay Cred: Sadly, none.


18. The Phantasm (Dana Delany)

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

The Phantasm is one of the most personal villains the animated Batman (Kevin Conroy) ever faced. In costume, the Phantasm speaks with the voice of Stacy Keach and strikes terror into Gotham’s organized crime families. But in reality, she is Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), the only woman who could ever pull Bruce Wayne away from his life as a vigilante. Sadly, the dissolution of their relationship leads them both to don masks and face the City’s worst criminals.

Film Appearances: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Tomatometer: 82%

US Box Office: $5.6 million

Destruction Factor: Batman’s heart.

Memorable Line: “Your Angel of Death awaits.”

Powers: Combat training and smoke bombs.

Cosplay Cred: Rare, but it’s memorable when you spot a Phantasm cosplay in the wild.


17. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson)

Though he seems to be a mentor, Elijah Price is really the architect of all of David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) problems. (Sorry: Spoiler.) Though he is the only person to recognize the presence of superpowers in the world, years of abuse and neglect — to say nothing of his brittle bones — lead him to one conclusion: be the supervillain the world needs to find the hero it requires.

Film Appearances: Unbreakable (2000), thought M. Night Shyamalan is currently working on a follow-up for 2019 called, appropriately, Glass.

Tomatometer: 68%

Worldwide Box Office: $248.1 million

Destruction Factor: Derails a train to prove David is indestructible, among other acts of terrorism.

Memorable Line: “They called me Mr. Glass!”

Powers: A terrifying intellect.

Cosplay Cred: A surprisingly rare occurrence at comic cons.


16. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn)

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

As both spy and confidant to Magneto (Ian McKellen), Mystique relies on her top martial arts skills and mutant ability to blend into any environment. But she is also the most visible example of Magneto’s crusade. Though she can choose to appear as anyone she wishes, Mystique’s natural blue serpentine appearance inspires fear in the world. The character was so memorable in the initial X-Men film series that the current cycle revolves around her, now played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Film Appearances: The X-Men franchise.

Tomatometer: X-Men: 81% (Certified Fresh), X2: X-Men United: 85% (Certified Fresh), X-Men: The Last Stand: 58%

Worldwide Box Office: X-Men: $296.3 million, X2: X-Men United: $407.7 million, X-Men: The Last Stand: $459.3 million

Destruction Factor: Though she has been known to blow stuff up now and again, that isn’t really her style. Instead she sows confusion and wreaks havoc by manipulating her foes.

Memorable Line: “You know, people like you are the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child.”

Powers: Shape-shifting.

Cosplay Cred: An extremely tough look to pull off at comic cons.


15. “Bad” Superman (Christopher Reeve)

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

When Superman is overcome by the toxic effects of Gus Gorman’s (Richard Pryor) counterfeit Kryptonite, he turns into a self-centered jerk who would rather make time with a pretty lady than save a bunch of bus passengers on a disintegrating bridge. Reeve’s attempt to channel an all-id Superman does feel more “bad” than evil, but it provides a fun opportunity for Reeve to play against himself and presents the first on-screen exploration of an idea — “What if Superman were evil?” — that would become a major theme driving the narrative behind movies like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.

Film Appearances: Superman III (1983)

Tomatometer: 26%

US Box Office: $60 million

Destruction Factor: Straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa ruined the Italian economy.

Memorable Line: “You always wanted to fly, Kent!”

Powers: All the powers of a Superman, but he’d rather drink Johnny Walker Red.

Cosplay Cred: Not nearly as common as it should be.


14. Joker (Jack Nicholson)

The merger of Nicholson’s persona with the Joker is one of Batman’s great strengths, but the performance is more nuanced than many gave it credit for at the time. Once he falls into the Axis Chemicals acid and adopts his clown persona, Nicholson loses some of his iconic cool to dig into the louder, broader aspects of Gotham’s #1 villain (e.g. the Smilex commercial). A consummate foe for the Batman of the late 1980s.

Film Appearances: Batman (1989)

Tomatometer: 72%

Worldwide Box Office: $411.3 million

Destruction Factor: Kills his boss, fries a business rival, and poisons Gotham City.

Memorable Line: “Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

Powers: Knowledge of chemistry and a flair for the theatrical.

Cosplay Cred: A fairly rare sight as other takes on the Joker became more popular.


13. Syndrome (Jason Lee)

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios)

The ultimate sycophant, Syndrome (née Buddy Pine) was a precursor of the sort of fan culture that eats itself for some perceived lack of purity. His jealousy of the supers leads to a lot of strife for the Parr Family and an America burnt out on superheroes. Nonetheless, his actions also lead to a possible return of heroes, despite an attempt to even the playing field.

Film Appearances: The Incredibles (2004)

Tomatometer: 97% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office: $633 million

Destruction Factor: His robots leave a path of destruction through the metro area the Parrs call home.

Memorable Line: “And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”

Powers: Zero point energy manipulation via technology.

Cosplay Cred: Virtually nonexistent, though memorably spotted on occasion.


12. Ultron (James Spader)

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

As the personification of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) id, Ultron’s attempts to secure the planet make clear Tony’s greatest failing: he cannot see the human cost in any of his endeavors. Powered by the Mind Stone, Ultron makes a final, ugly calculation in regards to humanity and sets out to destroy it. Also, since he’s based on Tony’s brain patterns, he quips. A lot.

Film Appearances: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Tomatometer: 75% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office: $1.41 billion

Destruction Factor: Raises – and razes – the entire nation of Sokovia; the ramifications of which are still being felt throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Memorable Line: “When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world will be metal.”

Powers: All the powers of an Iron Man, multiplied by the ability to self-replicate infinitely.

Cosplay Cred: Extremely rare, though a few Ultrons appeared at cons after the film’s release.


11. Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

While DC Comics’ favorite cat burglar skirts the line between villain and ne’er-do-well, Catwoman’s initial involvement in a plot to disgrace Batman (Michael Keaton) earns her a spot on the list. Pfeiffer’s performance defined the character for a long time – even if she was partly inspired by the TV Catwomen of the 1960s – as she fought Batman and her own turmoil. In the end, her Catwoman chose her own way and never appeared in a film again. Not that anyone has ever been able to forget her.

Film Appearances: Batman Returns (1992)

Tomatometer: 81% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office: $266.8 million

Destruction Factor: She blows up Schreck’s Department Store in an early show of strength.

Memorable Line: “Meow.”

Powers: Nine lives and a filing system that is unstoppable.

Cosplay Cred: Though the film is over 25 years old, this Catwoman costume is still popular.


10. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)

(Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Walt Disney Studios)

Yes, yes, he isn’t a villain by choice, as he’s very much a weapon of Hydra in the film, but Bucky Barnes is very effective at playing the part. His Soviet brainwashing is so effective that, when activated, almost no emotional appeal will work on him. Well, at least until his old friend Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), finally breaks through. And, really, Bucky’s relationship with Steve is part of what makes him so compelling.

Film Appearances: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), though Sebastian Stan first played Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

Tomatometer: Captain America: The Winter Soldier: 89% (Certified Fresh), Captain America: Civil War: 91% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office: Captain America: The Winter Soldier: $714.3 million, Captain America: Civil War: $1.15 billion

Destruction Factor: Assists in bringing down S.H.I.E.L.D. and its helicarrier fleet.

Memorable Line: “Who the hell is Bucky?”

Powers: Heightened strength and agility, a cybernetic vibranium arm.

Cosplay Cred: A beloved fixture of con-going cosplayers.


9. Vulture (Michael Keaton)

(Photo by Sony Pictures)

Despite a strong work ethic and good management skills, Adrian Toomes turned to crime when Tony Stark and government officials bulldozed over his contract to clean up Manhattan following the Battle of New York. Granted, the swiftness with which he became a black market weapons manufacturer suggests all he ever needed was a gentle shove to embrace villainy. But the opening scene of Spider-Man: Homecoming made him immediately understandable and compelling as a villain; and even sympathetic once his relationship to Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) world is revealed.

Film Appearances: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Tomatometer: 92% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office: $880.1 million

Destruction Factor: Rips a ferry in half, crashes a Stark Industries jet, and blasts Logan Marshall-Green out of the MCU.

Memorable Line: “The rich, the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us! The world’s changed boys. Time we change too!”

Powers: A flying rig based on crashed Chitauri tech.

Cosplay Cred: Surprisingly rare costume in spite of a great adaptation of the comic book Vulture’s look.


8. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman)

Excusing some of the camp value to Hackman’s Luthor – particularly in the sequel – he exudes the key quality of Superman’s archfoe: egotism. Luthor, a real estate swindler in these films, only decides to fight Superman because his ego dictates it. Consequently, Superman cannot really appeal to his emotions; none are present as he plans to remake the West Coast in his image.

Film Appearances: Superman (1978), Superman II (1981)

Tomatometer: Superman: 93%, Superman II: 87%

Worldwide Box Office: Superman: $300 million, Superman II: $156.9 million

Destruction Factor: Nearly sank California into the Pacific.

Memorable Line: “There’s a strong streak of good in you, Superman. But then, nobody’s perfect… almost nobody.”

Powers: He is the greatest criminal mind of his time. He also owns a hefty Kryptonite necklace that he uses to weaken Superman.

Cosplay Cred: Between Hackman’s refusal to go bald and the appalling 1970s fashions, he is a truly rare cosplay sight.


7. Zemo (Daniel Bruhl)

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

Currently, the Avengers’ greatest foe is not a flamboyant god or a maniacal robot, but a sad, quiet man with a detailed plan and working knowledge of governmental procedures. Zemo destabilizes the world for a very personal and, ultimately, small goal: hurt the Avengers the way they hurt him. He also succeeds, leaving Captain America a fugitive and Tony Stark so isolated that he has to pal around with a spider-themed teenager hero.

Film Appearances: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Tomatometer: 91% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office: $1.15 billion

Destruction Factor: With some smoke, a few explosions, and a very inconvenient truth, he brings down the Avengers. He also murders a few people along the way.

Memorable Line: “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again, but one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.”

Powers: Determination.

Cosplay Cred: Despite his comic book counterpart’s incredible fashion sense, the Marvel Cinematic Universe version inspires few to dress up.


6. Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)

(Photo by Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

One of the most sympathetic villains on the list, Molina’s Doc Ock was as much a victim of his passions as he was a willing accomplice in a plan to destroy Spider-Man. The cruelty that emerges in him came from his cybernetic implants; a crucial detail that becomes clear when he finally reasserts control and realizes he was trying to kill his friend Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). Also, the warmth with which he welcomes Peter — a guy in desperate need of a positive male role model — makes his turn all the more tragic.

Film Appearances: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Tomatometer: 93% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office: $783.8 million

Destruction Factor: His lab is completely destroyed during an experiment. He also leaves his mark on New York skyscrapers and the subway lines.

Memorable Line: “I will not die a monster.”

Powers: Super-tough robotic appendages.

Cosplay Cred: Popular in the wake of the film’s release, but has since faded.


5. General Zod (Terence Stamp)

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

Thanks to Stamp, Zod is as much a staple in Superman’s rogues gallery as Lex Luthor. Seemingly reserved, Zod can lash out without hesitation. Despite the air of refinement Stamp gives the character, he is just another petty dictator — a point underscored when he takes control of the White House (and, by implication, the world) only to suffer from conqueror’s boredom. Superman’s return late in the film comes as a relief to Zod, as debasing the son of Jor-El gives him something to do.

Film Appearances: Superman (1978), Superman II (1981)

Tomatometer: 87%

Worldwide Box Office: Superman: $300 million, Superman II: $156.9 million

Destruction Factor: He and his cohorts reshape Mount Rushmore and pummel the West Wing. They also make insurance premiums rise in Metropolis again.

Memorable Line: “Come to me, son of Jor-El! Kneel before Zod!”

Powers: All the powers of a Superman plus advanced military training.

Cosplay Cred: Zod’s look is just a little too disco for most cosplayers.


4. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan)

(Photo by © Marvel and © Walt Disney Pictures)

The secret shame of Wakanda, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) presents a legitimate concern to King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his subjects, even if his methods are woefully misguided: Should Wakanda reveal itself to the outside world and help those who live with the legacy of the African slave trade? The character’s heady subtext is backed by Jordan’s gifted abilities as a performer.

Film Appearances: Black Panther (2018)

Tomatometer: 96% (Certified Fresh)

Worldwide Box Office (To Date): $1.34 billion

Destruction Factor: Destroys all but one of the heart-shaped herbs, which is far more devastating than any property damage he caused in the film.

Memorable Line: “Nah, just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships. ‘Cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

Powers: Thanks to the heart-shaped herb, all the powers of Black Panther; Navy SEAL training.

Cosplay Cred: Few could wait for a comic convention to dress in Killmonger’s now-iconic London look. Cosplayers dressed in his subsequent battle suit, which looks suspiciously like Vegeta’s from Dragonball Z, shortly after.


3. Magneto (Ian McKellen)

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Erik Magnus Lehnsherr is one of the most compelling antagonists in comics and film for one simple reason: he’s pretty much right. His methods may be unquestionably cruel to conventional humans, but he recognizes two sapient species cannot share the planet. Violence, subjugation, and pain are inevitable. And when his point of view is given McKellen’s voice, it becomes incredibly persuasive. The more optimistic philosophy of the X-Men looks naïve and childish in comparison.

Film Appearances: The X-Men Franchise

Tomatometer: X-Men: 81% (Certified Fresh), X2: X-Men United: 85% (Certified Fresh), X-Men: The Last Stand: 58%, X-Men: Days of Future Past: 90%

Worldwide Box Office: X-Men: $296.3 million, X2: X-Men United: $407.7 million, X-Men: The Last Stand: $459.4 million, X-Men: Days of Future Past: $747.9 million

Destruction Factor: He moves the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, turns Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) into a water creature, and renders a sick burn unto Rogue (Anna Paquin) about the white stripe in her hair.

Memorable Line: “Let’s just say God works too slowly.”

Powers: The ability to manipulate all metal.

Cosplay Cred: His initial low-key look is rarely imitated these days.


2. Loki (Tom Hiddleston)

(Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Walt Disney Studios)

The power of persuasion is also a major weapon in the arsenal of the God of Lies. Loki is charismatic, witty, exciting, and a sharp dresser. He’s that bad boy who looks redeemable even as he opens a wormhole to let the Chitauri invade Earth. But then he has a good explanation for his bad choices: he was raised by the god who kidnapped him from his real family. And he means to do good, so shouldn’t that be enough? It’s no wonder Loki returns to the MCU time and again; his brand of villainy looks like it can be reasoned with. Even if he betrays Thor again, again, and again.

Film Appearances: Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), though he’s less a villain than a trickster — and even a bit of a hero — in the latter two.

Tomatometer: Thor: 77%, The Avengers: 92%, Thor: The Dark World: 66%, Thor: Ragnarok: 92%

Worldwide Box Office: Thor: $449.3 million, The Avengers: 1.52 million, Thor: The Dark World: $644.6 million, Thor: Ragnarok: $853.5 million

Destruction Factor: He seizes the throne of Asgard and almost murders Thor, then later precipitates the Battle of New York, which alerts the world to the presence of superpowered beings.

Memorable Line: “You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”

Powers: God-level abilities and a snake-oil salesman’s tongue.

Cosplay Cred: A perennial favorite, though his formal tux from Avengers was more popular in the wake of the film’s release.


1. Joker (Heath Ledger)

In an age when origins are required, Ledger’s Joker arrived on the scene without a name, place of birth, or a particular ambition. As Alfred (Michael Caine) put it, he just wants to see the world burn, and he even tells Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as much late in the film. His complete lack of backstory and motivation makes him the most unpredictable, dangerous supervillain on this list, and the purity of his cruelty makes him the most fascinating.

Film Appearances: The Dark Knight (2008)

Tomatometer: 94%

Worldwide Box Office: $1 billion

Destruction Factor: Took out most of Gotham’s entrenched mafia, destroyed Harvey Dent, and made the Batman Gotham’s Number One criminal.

Memorable Line:Why so serious?

Powers: None

Cosplay Cred: Thanks to the alterations to the classic Joker look, Ledger’s Joker costume remains popular at cons and at Halloween.

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